With six wins to their name, the 2015 edition of the UBC Thunderbirds can already deem their Canada West season a success, as the program looks to build into a national contender.
But with a Hardy Cup Semifinal matchup with the Manitoba Bisons on tap this Saturday (12 p.m. PT, Global Television), there’s the potential for head coach Blake Nill’s squad to make 2015 an even bigger step in the right direction.
“You can have a good year, but it’s always what you do in the playoffs,” Nill pointed out. “It would mean a lot to this program. We’re trying to garner traction here for the future – for the recruiting effort that’s going to be needed, the sponsorship effort that’s going to be needed, the marketing effort that we’re trying to have on campus. All of that would take a big step forward with a playoff victory.”
Nill, who engineered the Calgary Dino’s run of six Hardy Cup championships over the last seven seasons before leaving for UBC in the offseason last year, has already put the T-Birds back on the map.
Major recruits out of US colleges, like quarterback Michael O’Connor from Penn State and defensive back Taylor Loffler from Boise State, helped UBC go from a 2-6 team in 2014 to a 6-2 squad this season.
The team’s four-win improvement from 2014 marks the first time a Canada West team has improved by four wins in just one season since the 2006 Manitoba Bisons, who went 8-0 after a 4-3-1 season in 2005.
UBC also became the second team in Canada West history since the conference went to four playoff teams in 1999 to go from outside the playoffs one year to second the next, joining Simon Fraser who did it in 2003.
Now, Nill and company have the chance to showcase their newfound confidence in front of a national television audience on Global, in a three-hour television window that could truly announce the ‘Birds are for real.
“This is a three-hour commercial for both teams,” Nill explained. “I’ll go way back to 1996 at St. FX – our president commissioned a study that year to determine the value of St. FX playing in the Vanier Cup that year, and it was deemed to be almost $800,000.
“Anytime you’re on national TV it’s a commercial for your program, your school and it’s very valuable.”
While the major story heading into the weekend is UBC hosting its first home playoff game since 2011, which is airing on national TV to boot, and the Thunderbirds remarkable turnaround, the hosts are in for a fight from a gritty Manitoba team that went 5-3 in the regular season.
The pair played last week with second place on the line; the T-Birds emerged victorious 24-10, but without Manitoba starting quarterback Theo Deezar, who didn’t make the trip due to a concussion, it was hardly a test of best on best.
That, however, won’t be the case this weekend, as Deezar is back in the lineup for the Bisons, looking to replicate his 519-yards, four TD performance from earlier in the season against UBC in a wild 51-48 loss back on September 19.
“He’s our quarterback, it’s no different than O’Connor at UBC – he’s their guy and their guys believe in him,” Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie said. “Our guys believe in our quarterback and I think getting him back is certainly a boost for us on a practical level, but it’s a big emotional boost.”
With Deezar back in the fold, Manitoba hopes the third time’s the charm against a UBC team that has already had their number twice this season.